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Wendy Thomson: 'This isn’t one-off austerity, this is life'

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When Norfolk CC managing director Wendy Thomson insists that “everything is always possible” when discussing how to cope with dwindling local government resources eyebrows are raised at her confidence in such a grand claim, especially given recent events at Northamptonshire CC.

But the strength of her conviction, reinforced by overcoming many obstacles during a successful and varied career, cannot help but nurture optimism.

Ms Thomson, like her colleagues across the country, is facing the unenviable task of balancing the books at a time of increasing demand and shrinking funding. While those two factors head in different directions, Ms Thomson’s resolve remains steadfast.

She cites her time working for the soon-to-be abolished Greater London Authority in 1986 and, soon after, as assistant chief executive of Islington LBC as the grounding for this. 

At the time left-wing local government politics in the capital was fired up by the decision of Margaret Thatcher’s government to place a cap on rates, restricting the revenue available to councils. Rather than become distracted by wider issues occupying many at the time, Ms Thomson, working closely with Islington’s then leader Margaret Hodge (Lab), focused on what could be done to support communities, rather than matters outside the council’s control.

She says: “I wrote what Margaret and I lovingly call the ‘U-turn report’. It was about getting the focus back on core [council] business and Nicaragua would have to look after itself.

“We were going to look after our council tenants because they weren’t happy. Some people found [the period] challenging but I found it exciting doing the right thing, with really strong leadership.”

Ms Thomson credits her mother, who “organised us all and taught us how to organise”, for early, valuable lessons in the skills required. Her first job at 21 was as a “chief executive” for a grass-roots collective supporting the community in her native Montreal, Canada, with participating nurses, lawyers and social workers all earning the same wage.

After leaving Islington in 1993, she became chief executive of the charity Turning Point before taking the top job at Newham LBC.

Following a subsequent stint as director of local government inspection at the Audit Commission, Ms Thomson was appointed as an advisor to then prime minister Tony Blair.

In the Cabinet Office, she “got to work with very smart people and started to think about scale” running the Office of Public Service Reform, with a focus on creating a more joined-up government approach.

“I think they have given up on that now but I think we made some progress,” she says.

After leaving the Cabinet Office, Ms Thomson returned to Canada to become director of the School of Social Work and professor of social policy at McGill University in Montreal. 

But rather than remain in the relative comfort of academia, in 2014 she was recruited to turnaround struggling Norfolk CC. Its children’s services were rated ‘inadequate’ soon after she joined.

She says: “When I arrived, this place was going through a pretty tough time – it was not just children’s services. When a service is going wrong then that usually signals a broader issue of leadership and management.”

Ms Thomson said the problems were encapsulated by the instability in corporate and political leadership, with just one permanent director in place and the council led by an alliance of Labour, Ukip, Liberal Democrats and Greens.

She soon took “decisive steps” such as re-structuring senior management, recruiting permanent staff and setting up a “strategy and delivery unit”.

Ms Thomson says the Conservatives taking political control of the council in 2016, albeit as a minority administration, has enabled the council to “motor”.

However, she admits it has taken “longer than I would have liked” to implement strategies and changes.

Ofsted recently found there had been a “significant increase in the pace of change” in Norfolk’s children’s services, which are no longer judged inadequate.

Ms Thomson says there is more work to be done to drive up standards across the council and describes the current pressures on adult social care as “perilous”.

Having led the Norfolk and Waveney sustainability and transformation plan, she says the tension between a “quick fix” from NHS leaders and local government’s call for a sustainable strategy can play out on a local level.

Ms Thomson describes the move to fund council services through business rates as “slightly mad” but accepts “that is the brief”. And with characteristic determination and appetite for a challenge, she adds: “This isn’t just a one-off austerity, this is life.

“We have to find a way of looking after the most vulnerable people in our community and provide a reasonable base of universal services so there is public support to fund it and make that a sustainable model.”

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